Seven years ago, music geographer Michael Seman visited Omaha, Nebraska to investigate how its burgeoning local music scene was driving economic growth.
Seman, a senior research associate at the University of North Texas’s Center for Economic Development and Research, found Omaha was using indie rock, specifically, to revitalize a blighted neighborhood.
My story today checks in on that project.
Today, his life’s work still seeks to answer: How can music transform cities? Seman has some first-hand experience: he’s a singer and guitarist for Shiny Around The Edges, he’s got a doctorate degree in urban planning and public policy, and he’s part of the vibrant scene in his home city of Denton, Texas.
City leaders can support — and even build — their artistic communities, Seman says. Here’s how:
Danielle Paquette: Let’s start with a definition. You’ve studied it for years. What exactly is music geography?
Michael Seman: It’s the examination of music and how it interacts with the people, economy, built environment, and technology that comprises a certain space or place.
Music, like food, offers a lot of insight into how landscapes develop and how they might continue to do so in the future.
DP: Why does it matter?
MS: My research finds that local music scenes help attract and retain the educated, highly skilled that drives urban economies by working for established firms or creating their own.
It’s important to remember that music scene participants are often also educators, chefs, graphic designers, computer programmers, college students, entrepreneurs… They’re dynamic people with a lot of creative energy.
DP: How can a thriving scene help a struggling town?
MS: Music scenes can act as branding agents, spur urban redevelopment and emerge as industries in their own right. I’ve also found that music scene participants are civic-minded and often become involved in philanthropic pursuits, run for political office, and seek employment in city departments.
DP: How can city leaders help the artists out?
MS: First, just listen. Find out what type of music activity is already in your city and listen to it, and then listen to the stakeholders facilitating it: the musicians, promoters, venue owners, label owners.
What would help them be more successful? The majority of the time it’s something that doesn’t cost anything, but may take a little planning — like closing a street for a festival, or temporary parking permits for bands to unload equipment for shows.
Form a music council comprised of stakeholders across genres to advise city representatives. This has worked very well in Austin and Seattle.
Also — and this is very important — foster or help develop an all-ages Do-It-Yourself venue. These volunteer-run spaces incubate, educate, and empower the under-21 set who often proceed to drive their scenes and city economies to greater successes.
Running a DIY space is a great way for young adults to learn the ins-and-outs of marketing, arts management, business networking, graphic design, live sound, city permitting… If it weren’t for Omaha’s legendary former DIY space, the Cog Factory, there may very well not be a Slowdown today.
DP: What are some examples of cities successfully tapping into this power?
MS: The gold standard would be Nashville. New Orleans and Austin are right up there with it. Reykjavik, Iceland’s progressive policy initiatives have worked really well in terms of developing an industry, city brand, and tourism opportunities.
Omaha’s embracing their scene as an urban redevelopment catalyst is impressive. Flint, Michigan’s foresight to foster their all-ages DIY space in a similar manner to help turn their downtown around.
DP: Are music scenes just for cool kids? How can, um, parents get involved?
MS: Haha. No!
Music scenes are pretty accepting if you are passionate and willing to get involved. You would be surprised how many parents are in bands and run labels and book venues. If you aren’t musically inclined, but your son or daughter is, encourage them to play in a band. It’s an activity surprisingly similar to being a part of a start-up firm.
Hi-tech entrepreneurs are getting younger, on that note. We are now in the time when a senior in high school might be a successful app developer as well as play in a band with the one experience helping to foster the other.
If mom and dad are supportive, listen to music with him or her, go to their shows from time-to-time… There’s no telling what could happen.
DP: Why is art, in general, a good civic investment?
MS: Art is a way to give all of the communities in your city a voice and establish an ongoing dialogue. The production, performance and display of art in a city offers the chance for community members from different ethnic, economic and social backgrounds to engage with one another — and the city at large.
Art is a mirror for a city to assess where it stands currently. It’s an interactive channel for communities to push forward. It decides where cities will go in the future.
DP: Who are your favorite musicians?
MS: Oh man, so many: Greg Ginn, Kim Gordon, Paul Desmond, Dave Brubeck, DJ Quick, Mike Forbes of Tiger Hatchery, Neon Indian’s Alan Palomo, J.S. Bach, Ice-T, Megzzz of Eat Avery’s Bones, Frank Sinatra, Billie Holiday, everyone in Gus Gus and the Nortec Collective, my wife Jennifer Seman… The list goes on and on.